MLB schedule makers give edge to A's, not Giants
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SCOTTSDALE AND PHOENIX, AZ. -- Brian Sabean was talking about, well, everything regarding his team’s upcoming task in re-defending the crown. He knew that the last time the Giants had to defend the crown, they attacked the task with strong arms and Wiffle bats, and ended up winning 86 games when they deserved to win 80.

But when he was done breaking down the pitchers, hitters, coaching staff, farm system, catering and company picnic plans, he looked up and said, “And frankly, the schedule is going to be more difficult this year. Quirkier.”

And he did not mean “quirkier” in the happy/wacky/jolly way.

Now maybe he is supposed to look at every schedule with an eye toward unseen dangers. Billy Beane tried desperately to minimize the A’s addition of 19 games against the god-awful Houston Astros, and we’ll get to him in a minute, but Sabean had more immediate concerns.

“We have one trip where we’re home, then we fly to St. Louis for three, then come back home for an off-day, two with Toronto, another off-day and then we’re in Arizona for three,” he said, marveling in his mind’s eye at the schedule-makers for their seeming creativity. “Then we have another in the second half where we go to L.A. for four, then three at the Mets, three at the Yankees, and then home for three with the Dodgers. Trust me on this, that’s three too many days in New York.”

What he isn’t saying, or is hinting at as obliquely as he can manage, is the benefit the schedule provided the Giants a year ago. From Aug. 28 until season’s end, they went 23-11 against mostly the dregs of the National League. In 11 series, they played only two, six games, against a team with a winning record (Los Angeles), and filled out the remainder of the card with, get this:

•       Houston (55-107, 1-8 against the Giants).
•       Chicago (61-101, 1-6 against the Giants).
•       Arizona (81-81, 9-9 against the Giants).
•       Colorado (64-98, 4-14 against the Giants).
•       San Diego (76-86, 6-12 against the Giants).

In sum, the schedule helped them go from 2 ½ games ahead on Aug. 27 to clinching the NL West with 10 games to go. So yes, the schedule matters.

This year, they also exchanged the AL West for the AL East, and lost the nine Houston games, making the schedule at least mildly more difficult even before you factor in Hell Week in Gotham.

The A’s, on the other hand, picked up 19 games against the Houstons, lost 14 against the AL East, and traded the NL West for the NL Central. Again, not a huge difference, but enough in a tight race, and the A’s had the tightest race a division winner could have when you consider that they led their division for exactly zero seconds of the regular season (remember, the moment they clinched was the moment the season ended).

“But you never know how the schedule is actually going to play out,” Beane said when told that he might have picked up 15 wins just on the Astros alone. “I can guarantee there will be some team or teams in our division that have a hard time trying to beat Houston, because that’s just how it is. Plus a lot of the time, it isn’t who you’re playing but when you play them and how you’re playing at the time.”

That’s Beane’s way of saying, “Sure it looks like we get a break here, but it isn’t always the way you think it’s going to be.”

And in truth, it isn’t. The A’s used to be part of the worst division in baseball, in part because they helped make it so. Last year, with the Elephants a far more inspiring contributor, the AL West was the game’s toughest, with a winning percentage of .542, 26 points better than its closest competitor.

Now the Astros will bring that average down some, but the rest of the division will benefit from 76 of those games. It may mean that the A’s can’t think about 94 being enough games to repeat as division champion, but they’ll go into the 2013 season knowing one thing for sure.

They won’t be spending an entire week in September in New York, and that alone gives them a leg up in the new year.